The answer is no….. and maybe yes. But is this the real question?
Does sex assure a lasting, stable, happy marriage? This is a complex issue.
In the non devotional world, where sex is the norm, the divorce rate, in many nations, is around 50%. So from that angle, the answer is no, sex does not assure one a successful marriage. And within ISKCON, where sex is discouraged, some estimate divorce rates are even higher. So, that begs a much larger question.
We are part of the Grihasta Vision Team, which offers marriage counseling and workshops for ISKCON devotees. While writing on the subject of intimacy for a Grihastha Vision Team book recently, our attention was caught by research done in the United Kingdom, on reasons for divorce. The major reason cited was “growing apart”.
Growing apart now trumps extramarital affairs as the No. 1 cause of divorce in the U.K., according to a survey of divorce lawyers. Since accountancy firm Grant Thornton started publishing its annual matrimonial survey in 2003, infidelity had been the biggest marriage killer. (http://www.torontosun.com/2011/08/31/affairs-no-longer-leading-cause-of-divorce-survey)
According to Seattle based researcher, Dr. John Gottman, who has studied marriage dynamics for over 40 years, what couples fight about and end up divorcing over is not money, sex, the in-laws, the TV remote etc., it is about failed bids for connection. Bids for connection are attempts for affirmation, attention, affection or other positive interactions. Acknowledging these bids can be as small as verbally acknowledging your spouse when they comment on observing a beautiful bird or reading something inspiring. Turning towards can be as simple a smile or a warm glance. Gottman observed such small, affectionate exchanges nurture a sense of trust; a confidence that, “My world is important to you, that you care for me, that you are there for me.” It nurtures a deep bond. Repeatedly ignoring these bids sends the message, “You and your world are not important to me,” resulting in the couple growing apart as mentioned in the UK survey.
Research showed that in flourishing marriages, partners turn toward each other 86% of the time. Healthy marriages have a large balance of positive exchanges. If there is an inevitable withdrawal or negative exchange, the impact will be negligible, due to the large positive balance. If you have $10,000 in the bank and withdraw $50, the impact is not so noticeable. This confirms what Srila Prabhupada said about a husband and wife’s quarrel being like a thunder bolt. It does not amount to anything.
“Actually, when husband and wife fight, it shouldn’t be taken very seriously. It is just like sometimes in the morning there will be thundering in the clouds, but everybody knows there will be no rain.” Srila Prabhuada Friday March 31, 1972
However, if there is only a small positive emotional balance the negative exchanges will be amplified. A $50 withdrawal from am $75 account will pinch. Or, like here in Saranagati, where I live, during a dry summer one lightning bolt can start a huge forest fire. Couples headed for divorce in dry marriages turn toward each other only 36% of the time.
Over time, neglecting these subtle, affectionate exchanges can cause resentment to develop which may slowly swell into contempt, the precursor of divorce.
Gottman’s research affirms Srila Prabhupada’s description of affection as a symptom of life:
“To cut off the tie of all other affections does not mean complete negation of the finer elements, like affection for someone else. This is not possible. A living being, whoever he may be, must have this feeling of affection for others because this is a symptom of life. The symptoms of life, such as desire, anger, hankerings, feelings of attraction, etc., cannot be annihilated.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.42, Purport)
From this statement it is evident that affection and love are integral aspects, or needs, of the soul and an essential part of spiritual reality. We can easily deduce that affection is the symptom of life in a Vaishnava marriage. Conversely we can infer that a marriage devoid of affection is devoid of life.
Unfortunately in an immature pursuit of spiritual progression couples may minimize these bids for connection and affection. They may minimize emotional connections to avoid physical attractions which could lead to “illicit sex”. They may minimize shared activity to avoid attractions. They many minimize intellectual connections to avoid attraction. They may avoid exchanging any affection to avoid attraction. Thus they become increasingly distant.
We observe that abnegating affection results in extramarital affairs, divorce, relationship dysfunction and couples living in parallel separate worlds. All these result from a tragic unmet need, the need for affection and connection.
The challenge for grihasthas is to maintain a holistic relationship while facing the challenge of dealing with affection and physical intimacy in relation to the principle of no illicit sex.
Matters are further complicated by a plethora of opinions by current initiating gurus on the principle of no illicit sex. Some devotees consider licit sex to be only that which is done specifically for procreation within marriage and others consider licit sex to be sex within marriage, leaving it up to the couple to progress. Both views are based on Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. On the liberal side we have gurus advising disciples to acquiesce to sex to save their marriage. Hence the title of this article.
However, as much as the sex concern may be a component of maintaining the marriage bond or connection, so also are emotional connection, intellectual connection, and affection as described above. It is extremely important for couples to look at intimacy and connection with a broad vision. A relationship with sex but no emotional connection, no intellectual connection and no shared activity is also at risk of failure. Another pit fall of simply advising a wife to give her husband sex is that she may feel objectified, reducing her to the status of an object of gratification.
In the sacred tradition of marriage, couples should be taught to focus on “a heart to heart connection” with the understanding that navigating the sex issue is one component of a much bigger picture.
This is an essential understanding for those advising grihasthas. Simply advising couples to concede to sex without helping them to develop meaningful heart to heart emotional and intellectual relationships may just be a Band-Aid solution.
As much as a man may have need for physical affection, the woman may have a need for emotional connection. In such a case if only one side of these needs are met the marriage may not remain healthy. A couple’s focus should be on connection and affection, understanding what they themselves as individuals need to be peaceful and progress in spiritual life and what their spouse needs to be peaceful and to progress. This will require an open and honest dialogue.
“guhyam akhyati prcchati.” And you disclose your mind; there is no secrecy between the lover and the beloved. And the other party also discloses. In this way, love becomes manifest.”
(Srila Prabhupada lecture, July 6, 1976, Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya- lila 20.101)
In addition, if they are unable to follow the highest standards set by Srila Prabhupada, they should find a position from which they can be peaceful and gradually progress. Sex only in marriage should be seen as platform from which couples can be encouraged to progress to higher platforms. Sex outside of marriage is sinful and carries a reaction that is extremely crippling to family and society—divorce is devastating.
The conclusion of the Grihastha Vision Team is the real question is how to maintain a healthy, respectful, affectionate heart to heart, connection. This is a subject every couple should thoughtfully navigate with sensitivity, mutual respect, honesty and compassion understanding that the integrity and health of their marriage is an essential part of their spiritual life and Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
In the material world, rajo-guna is passion, but in the spiritual world it is affection. In the material world, affection is contaminated by rajo-guna, but in the suddha-sattva the affection that maintains the devotees is transcendental.
(Srimad Bhagavatam 10.13.50, Purport)
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Partha dasa and his wife Uttama devi dasi were initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1973. They moved to the Saranagati community in western Canada in 1996 to help establish Varnasrama. Seeing the project rocked by numerous divorces and the subsequent impact on community development, they concluded the best service they could render to Srila Prabhupada would be to work to help stabilize and support marriages, which are the foundational building blocks of varnasrama.
They have helped the Canadian temples support marriage by introducing a national policy that requires couples to take premarital mentorship or education before their ceremony in a Canadian temple. Since 2004 they have been members of the Grihastha Vision Team and have mentored numerous couples and facilitated seminars around the world.
They are co-authors, along with other GVT members, of Heart and Soul Connection: A Devotional Guide to Marriage, Service and Love. Available at http://vaisnavafamilyresources.org/
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies